With 54 little squares, six sides, 43 quintillion different solutions, and more than 350 million cubes sold, the numbers surrounding Erno Rubik's Cube are staggering. Now some teachers are using the puzzle to teach math in their classrooms.
Brad Culbertson, a fifth-grade teacher in Port St. Lucie, Fla., has been using the cubes for two years to teach students geometry topics, including edges, faces, and vertices. But the cube has other educational uses—he can teach his students about algebraic problem solving, patterns, and graphing as well. When the students are done with their work, they compete to solve the cubes.
"Students use them in free time," he says. "It's easy team-building in the class. Students that learn it quickly end up being coaches for the other students." About two thirds of the students in his class can solve the puzzle without any help, and three students can solve it in under two minutes.
"We record their times then graph them. They'll see a learning curve where they see the results of their efforts," he says.
Three years ago, Seven Towns, the maker of Rubik's Cube, realized the puzzle's potential educational uses. It launched You Can do the Rubik's Cube, a series of lesson plans and classroom activities that use the cube. More than 3,000 schools and after school programs have signed up for the program.
Holly Riehl, the program's director, says the cube is more versatile than you'd think.
"It's being used equally in elementary and high schools, for different types of students. It can be used for gifted students as an enrichment program, and with special-education students—it helps to have something in their hands," she says.
Then there are the master solvers. Earlier this month, 275 competitors from 40 countries met in Bangkok to see who could solve the cube fastest. Michal Pleskowicz of Poland solved the cube five times in an average of 8.65 seconds, nearly two seconds slower than the world record time of 5.66 seconds.
For the rest of us, there's You Can do the Rubik's Cube's step-by-step guide to solving the puzzle. As students are solving the cube, they're actually performing a series of algorithms. Culbertson says his students have learned how to skip certain steps in order to solve the cube faster.
As more schools push technology and connectedness, Riehl says students can learn plenty from a 37-year-old piece of plastic that costs less than $10.
[Learn more about America's Most Connected Classrooms.]
"Not only is it an inexpensive classroom resource, but it's in your hands. I think all of these virtual learning tools are very good, but there's a benefit to holding something yourself," she says. Although they don't yet have hard data, Riehl says schools involved in the program have reported seeing increased learning in math.
Culbertson reports seeing more focus from students, and says his class last year performed very well on Florida state exams. This year, more students are doing homework and sticking with tough problems.
"When they see progress over time and the results of practice, and then you tie that to homework, it makes it concrete for them," he says. "It shows them that sometimes the reward isn't immediate with a long-term problem.